I supped this morning with a friend, former student, and sometime reader of this blog (all delightfully wrapped into one person), so I’ll keep today’s rumination brief —
What role might college students play in our school?
There’s a lot of human capital lost in sending kids off to college. In The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris notes that traditional societies are made up of an unbroken chain of ages, and argues that each age cohort learns much from the cohort slightly older than it.
But in modern middle-class America, she notes, we break that chain, removing the 18-22 year olds from the community by packing them away to university.
As a result, the natural teachers of teens are hundreds of miles removed, and taken up with tasks that don’t relate to what teenagers are struggling with.
Might our school attempt to have some meaningful role for college kids?
I pose this riddle because I’ve lately been hatching a plan to potentially do some community-building with undergraduates.
The idea, in brief:
College is perhaps the best chance most Americans get to expand their boundaries. In college, people are supposed to put their beliefs to the test, to imagine living inside other worldviews, and to try out this whole “life of the mind” business.
I won’t say that colleges are doing a bad job of that (though some others do). Instead, I’ll just suggest (from my own experience) that they could be doing a better job.
Anti-intellectualism of various forms is present on campuses (sometimes in classrooms). Some do honestly explore neighboring ideologies and religions; many only engage them as opposing philosophies to be refuted.
A shame! Because of this, some of the best years of possible intellectual expansion are diminished.
Professors such as Gerald Graff (author of Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education) and Mark Edmundson (Why Read?) have argued that a more richly intellectual atmosphere can be sparked in college classrooms. May Allah bless them and keep them!
But I wonderful if the easiest route to improving this doesn’t from the classroom, but from campus student groups.
What I have in mind is a sort of “Campus Crusade for Christ” for humanists — a category I’ll here define by borrowing the first sentence in this moment’s Wikipedia entry on humanism:
Humanism is a group of philosophies and ethical perspectives which emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).
Humanists think that human life matters, that there are pressing problems in need of solutions, and that the big questions are open for discussion.
Notably, this definition does not exclude religious believers. (In fact, the first “humanists” were Renaissance Christians — e.g. Erasmus — who rebelled against the medieval synthesis and sought to bring the Greek and Roman classics into discussion.)
Some personal history might be helpful:
I grew up an evangelical Christian, and was very active in a few campus ministry groups.
I’m no longer a Christian — another story entirely — but I still think that these groups often (though certainly not always) did an amazing job providing holistic community for students. By “holistic” I mean practical and intellectual, emotional and theoretical.
They draw together students around the existential questions of where we come from, what we are, and where we’re going.
Of course, these groups also gather people around the answers that their specific brand of religion provided. (Although I think a better way of stating this is that they gathered people around the frameworks that their denominations provided for talking through the questions. In practice, there was often much leeway in actual beliefs. In my dozen-odd-years in Christian groups of all kinds, Protestant fundamentalism included, I can attest that there was always much greater intellectual variety than detractors of religion typically assume.)
Religions shouldn’t get to keep such fun to themselves!
What I’m suggesting is a safe space for talking through these important personal and societal questions, open to people of any (and every) persuasion willing to have an open mind.
I’m suggesting a middle space between the caffeine-fueled bull sessions of dorm hallways and formal academic classes.
The group could make personal and vital what college courses treat as objective and quizzable.
While an intro to astronomy course might talk about the origin of the Universe, a campus humanist group might discuss the lingering riddles of the Big Bang, and what seemingly-mindless cosmic evolution entails for our vexing questions of meaning.
While an Anthropology 101 course might talk about the shocking array of cultural diversity (in, e.g., sexual customs) and the professional practice of cultural relativism (judging actions in another’s culture only by the culture’s own rules), a humanist student group could consider whether there are universal norms to ground our own ethics in.
While entire disciplines are wedded (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly) to political worldviews — this is why economics majors and literature majors don’t often get along at parties — a campus humanist group might note all these ways of conceiving of the world, and sift carefully through them.
This group could even, in my blurred imaginings, be a safe space for crucial discussions on impossible topics — religion, philosophy, politics, culture, gender, race, and so on.
This may be a problem I work on as the years progress, and is the reason I raise the question of whether college students might play a role in our school.
Any potential connections spring to mind?